The other day I posted a status on Facebook that S had gone to bed but cried when I got my dinner, so I had a cold dinner again. It seemed to attract several comments (not on the status itself so much, but to me personally via texts, emails and in person) telling me I was doing the wrong thing by going to her when she cried. This post is my response to those statements.
Babies cry in order to get their carer to help meet their needs. Babies, certainly those under a year of age, do not know how to manipulate, and cannot be spoilt. They can’t say, So sorry; I’m feeling a bit crap. I’ve woken up suddenly and it’s dark and I’m alone and I don’t like it. Could you just give me a quick hug and help me get back to sleep? – They cry instead; it’s their only way of letting us know they need us.
A baby’s cry is supposed to be loud, and to grate on your nerves and make you fele emotional – so that you will want to make it stop, by doing whatever it is the baby is crying for, not by closing the door and turning the TV up. Evolution did not make babies cry in this way so as to make you ignore it until it stops. Surely if a baby’s cry was meant to be ignored, it would be easier to do so?
In the 1970s Mary Ainsworth and Sylvia Bell conducted a study into how mothers responded to their babies’ crying and how this affected the child’s behaviour. They found that the more quickly a mother responded to her crying infant, even if she wasn’t able to stop the child from crying very quickly, the less the child cried later.
They also found that “cloe maternal contact” was the most effective way of stopping a child from crying. The more responsive I am to S’s crying, the less she will cry in future. For me this is evidenced in the fact that actually, she cries very rarely.
There have been numerous studies into attachment theory (different from attachment parenting, which is an approach to parenting; attachment theory is the study of relationships between humans), and the overwhelming finding is that the more responsive a parent is during the first year of a child’s life, the more securely attached the child will be, and therefore the better the relationship between parent and child going forward.
Many will say that the “cry it out” technique works – after a few torturous hours of screaming the baby “learns” and no longer cries. But what has the baby learned? Most probably, the baby has learned that crying does not work, and nobody will come to help them.
If you view a baby as a creature trying to manipulate and trick you, then you would see this as a success. But it has serious implications. This is a psychological term called learned helplessness.
Acting as if a child is trying to manipulate us when it’s crying removes the child’s control over their situation and risks their losing interest in interacting with the world. Studies by Dr Kevin Nugent of Boston Children’s Hospital have found that babies whose cries are routinely ignored show symptoms of depression. There is also evidence that leaving a baby to cry can impede their development. I don’t know about you, but if I’m stressed out, I’m not really able to concentrate on learning new things.
I am not telling you that what you are doing/have done for your child/children is wrong. What you do is your own business. But stop telling me to leave my child to cry, because you are wasting your time. I know that when I am crying and need some support, I don’t like to be ignored. I know that if I feel shitty, I can ask a friend for help.
My baby can’t speak yet; her only way of communicating her needs is by crying. And yes, sometimes it is tiring and draining, and I’d rather be sitting downstairs eating a hot meal than spending my evening running up and down the stairs to console a crying baby – but that doesn’t mean I’m going to ignore her for the sake of a hot meal. What I do now affects what will happen tomorrow, and I’m happy to have a few cold meals if it means my child will be happy, both now and in the future.